The 458 Speciale is one of the great Ferraris, and we don't say that lightly

What is it?

The Ferrari 458 Speciale is the fastest, most advanced, but also the most fun to drive mid-engined V8 sports car that Ferrari has ever built.

And those are Ferrari's words, not mine. Which kind of means something when you've got the F40 in your portfolio.

Why? Because the Speciale can do pretty much everything that the regular 458 Italia can do - which, let's face it, is rather a lot - and then adds a good 20 percent of extra kaboom where it really counts.

So it's faster, louder (inside though not out interestingly), goes round corners with a deal more precision, and subjectively makes the hairs on the back of your neck not simply stand up straight but snap clean off.

Beneath its mildly redesigned but still achingly beautiful skin, the Speciale is bubbling with new technology, most if not all of which is there to enhance rather than inhibit the interaction between driver, car and road below.

Truly, this is one of the great Ferraris, and there have been quite a few over the years.

What's it like?

Perhaps the Ferrari 458 Speciale's most outstanding party trick arrives courtesy of its new SSC system, which stands for side slip control. It's basically a new setting within the now familiar manettino set up that allows you to go slightly sideways in the car but with the ESP system still fully engaged.

It'll do its best to save you, in other words, if you push things too far by deploying too much power at the exit of a corner which is easy to do when there's 597bhp at 9000rpm beneath your right foot.

The system may sound like little more than a clever version of traction control, but in reality it's a lot more sophisticated than that. And the results it can bring in terms of improving the fun factor while reducing the lap times of even the most competent drivers are not to be underestimated.

In Luca di Montezemolo's words - who drove the car "many times during the development process" - SSC is the element that distinguishes the Speciale as one of the great Ferraris.

It works by effectively predicting what the optimum levels of tyre slip, steering angle, throttle position and engine revs might be at any given point in a corner, and then trimming back the engine revs and opening and closing the E-diff to deliver the most effective cornering posture. It's not predictive; there is no use of GPS tracking for example. Instead, the car monitors what it is doing every couple of milliseconds and then reacts accordingly.

In Race mode it won't allow any slip from the rear tyres whatsoever. But in "CT off" mode it will allow a fair bit of oversteer at the corner exit if it senses that you have the right amount of opposite lock applied, and that not too much throttle is being applied.

Yet at the same time, if you go too far and the car senses that not enough corrective lock is being applied or that the throttle is too far open, it will then trim back the flow of torque, albeit smoothly. It never feels like the car is taking over, however. Most of the time it simply feels like you are catching the slide rather sweetly, and then carrying on up the road.

It won't brake for you on the way into corners or do anything so intrusive as that. It's still entirely up to the driver to get the car to where it needs to be at the apex of any given corner, in other words, but once you reach that point, you can use the system to get on the throttle harder and faster than you otherwise would, without any fear of turning the car around.

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You can still turn everything off if you wish to go completely sideways, and ultimately risk spinning the car - but with SSC engaged, Ferrari says the Speciale is actually faster and more thrilling to drive for the vast majority of drivers.

Even those who are as useful as ex-F1 driver Marc Gene reckon the system is "at least as good as me in most corners, especially in fast ones where the electronics can really make a difference."

The 4.5-litre engine in the Speciale is the most potent non-turbo V8 that Ferrari has yet produced, and although it's fundamentally the same as the motor that powers the Italia, it has been heavily massaged nonetheless.

With an incredible 14:1 compression ratio thanks to a range of internal modifications and a rev limit of over 9000rpm, it thumps out not just more power than the regular 458 - in this case a whopping 597bhp - but also more torque, right across the entire rev range.

And that makes it feel quite different in nature to the Italia's engine. It's more urgent in its delivery and a lot more gutsy everywhere; less top end orientated basically. It might be naturally aspirated but it still churns out a decent amount of torque, too - some 398lb ft at 6000rpm.

Ferrari has also shaved 90kg off the 458's overall weight, bringing the Speciale down to 1395kg. Everything from the racing bucket seats to the rear screen glass has been preened to shave kilograms.

There has also been various other upgrades, including the braking system (lifted almost unchanged from the LaFerrari), the gearbox (20 percent quicker upshifts and a scarcely credible 44 per cent quicker downshifts), the tyres (new bespoke Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s) and suspension.

Even the aerodynamics have been fettled, with improvements to the airflow above, below and across the car to reduce drag and increase downforce. What you end up with is a car that can run rings around the standard 458 Italia, on road or track. And the last time I drove one of those it didn't exactly strike me as being slow.

Hard though it might be to believe but, thus equipped, the Speciale makes the regular 458 Italia feel like yesterday's car, dynamically at least. It's so much more "lit" than the standard Italia when you're going for it, yet still damn near as civilised when you're not. You're talking 0-62mph in 3.0sec and a top speed of 202mph, and - somewhat remarkably - a claimed average of 23.9mpg; this is a seriously capable machine.

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Ferrari refers to the Speciale as an "extreme car" but apart from its harder sports seats and somewhat unnecessary four point harness, it barely feels any less usable than a regular Italia.

The ride quality is stiff but not unacceptably so, certainly not on the northern Italian backroads that we drove it on, and the damper stiffness can be knocked back electronically via a wheel-mounted button that softens the ride on "bumpy roads."

Should I buy one?

The 200 or so people in the UK who will take delivery of a Ferrari 458 Speciale next year will not be buying this car to revel in its soothing ride quality.

Instead, they will want this car to take them to the next level when it comes to pure driver involvement, without scaring them in the process.

And that's ultimately what the Speciale is all about; allowing drivers to feel like they are sailing closer to the wind than ever before, even to the point of allowing them to indulge in a touch of digitally controlled opposite lock, but without actually frightening them at the same time.

Which is probably this car's greatest trick of all in the end - being epically fast and exciting to drive but also easy to operate and interact with, all at once. There's no fight to be had when driving this car, in other words, only pure, undiluted, albeit electronically enhanced pleasure.

It makes you wonder what on earth will they come up with next at the increasingly indulgent sweet shop that is Ferrari.

Ferrari 458 Speciale

Price £208,065; 0-62mph 3.0sec; Top speed 202mph; Economy 23.9mpg (with HELE option); CO2 275g/km (with HELE option); Kerbweight 1395kg; Engine V8, 4497cc, naturally aspirated petrol; Installation Mid, longitudinal, RWD; Power 597bhp at 9000rpm; Torque 398lb ft at 6000rpm; Gearbox 7-speed twin-clutch semi-auto

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